NFL Draft: Selecting a DL in first round rarely on Steelers' board

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Chances are better the Steelers would hire a new head coach before they would select a defensive lineman in the first round of the draft.

At least, that's the historical record.

The Steelers have had two head coaches in the past 18 years. They've drafted just one defensive lineman in the first round in the past 20. They have not drafted a defensive end in the first round since Ronald Reagan was president.

That could change Saturday, when the first two rounds of the draft take place. The Steelers have paid close attention to defensive line prospects for months, and the chances they might select one with their first pick are as high as they have been in years.


The PG draft order

Sunday: The Class of 2009 & The Steelers: A Good Fit

Today: The Steelers could use an end. But FYI: No DE they've ever taken in Round 1 made a Pro Bowl?

Tomorrow: Drafting 32nd doesn't have to be a bad thing. Consider some of the players taken around No. 32.

Wednesday: What if there were no NFL draft? It could happen in 2012.

Thursday: A look at the contest to land the best undrafted free agents in the hours after the draft.

Friday: A look at some familiar names you can expect to hear called.

Saturday: Ed Bouchette zeroes in on the Steelers' short list while offering his annual mock draft.


Several could fit their bill as 3-4 defensive ends, and some are listed as defensive tackles. Among them are LSU's Tyson Jackson, who is 6 feet 4, 298 pounds; Southern California's Fili Moala, who is 6-4, 305, and San Jose State's Jarron Gilbert, who is 6-5 1/2, 285.

Moala and Gilbert were among a group of defensive linemen invited to visit the Steelers over the past four weeks. Six of the 30 visitors were defensive linemen, some first-round candidates and some later-round prospects.

The only defensive lineman the Steelers have drafted in the first round in the past 20 years was nose tackle Casey Hampton in 2001. Aaron Jones (1988) was the previous defensive end drafted by the Steelers in the first round.

Hampton holds the distinction of being the only defensive lineman drafted by the Steelers in the first round to make a Pro Bowl in 40 years, since Joe Greene in 1969. The rest, all defensive ends, were busts in one form or another.

They tried in the 1980s; oh, how they tried. The Steelers had never drafted a defensive end in the first round until 1981, and then they went on a spurt, drafting four in eight years -- the only four times they drafted defensive ends that high in their history.

First came Keith Gary in 1981, and he responded by playing in the Canadian Football League for two seasons before joining the Steelers in 1983. He played through 1988 with little impact. Daryl Sims suffered a hand injury in his rookie season of 1985 and played one more year with the Steelers. Gabe Rivera was paralyzed in a car accident in October of his rookie season of 1983. Jones somehow lasted five years while doing little.

"Gabe Rivera was the best one, and it's easy to say that because he never had a chance to prove it, but I think he was," said Tom Modrak, the Buffalo Bills' vice president of college scouting.

Modrak was a longtime Steelers personnel man in the 1980s and 1990s, along with Tom Donahoe. They help explain why it is so hard to find defensive ends high in the draft to play in a 3-4, which the Steelers have run for more than a quarter-century.

"Those guys aren't your big-play guys, they're under the radar when it comes to big plays," Modrak explained. "They free up other people and stop the run, they're not the drama guys."

Donahoe drafted the most recent Pro Bowl defensive end with the Steelers, but not in the first round. He selected Aaron Smith in the fourth round of the 1999 draft from Division II Northern Colorado.

"There's always luck involved in it, but, when you're running a 3-4, those defensive ends are hard to find because they're unusual," Donahoe said. "You need guys who are big, strong, athletic, and, if you can find one, also someone who can rush the passer. Aaron Smith is probably the prototype of what everybody is looking for, but how many Aaron Smiths are there?"

A 3-4 end needs to be almost the size of a tackle but with the dexterity to play the outside. A 4-3 end normally is lighter and more of a pass-rusher. The Steelers have tried to find ends in the middle and late rounds this century and failed on almost all of them with players such as Ryan McBean (2007), Orien Harris (2006), Shaun Nua (2005) and Eric Taylor (2004).

Their only successful draft pick at defensive end in this century was Brett Keisel, their second of two seventh-round choices in 2002.

You can find one in the middle rounds, but it takes patience to develop him because he won't be NFL-ready at that position for at least a year or two, and there is projection involved in that pick.

"You want people who can impact the game on third downs and, if you have the ability to rush the passer, people put more of a premium on that,"Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "So defensive linemen who can play good on first and second down, they tend to slide and normally fit 3-4 teams because they're looking for outside linebackers to be those pass-rushers. They're looking for the hybrids."

Keisel turns 31 at the start of the season, and Aaron Smith is 33. There are no young replacements behind them. The Steelers need to pay attention to their defensive line in this draft, but when and with whom is the question.

"You look in the draft this year, and there's not a lot of guys like that," Donahoe said. "Tyson Jackson looks like he could be a 3-4 defensive end. The list of those guys is never big, and they run out quickly. There's never a deep pool of them, and, sometimes, you're better off maybe getting a guy later and trying to develop him, like Orpheus Roye and Aaron Smith, those kinds of guys."

Yet that approach has not worked for the Steelers lately. Neither has not being able to draft high in the first round.

"It's hard to find them," said Scout.com analyst Tom Marino, a former scout with the New York Giants among other teams in three different pro leagues. "When the Giants were a top team and a 3-4 team, a key was that defensive end and they're hard to find. The closest one for a first-round guy who's out there this year is probably Tyson Jackson from LSU. But I don't think he'll be there for them."

That has been a perplexing problem for the Steelers forever at defensive end in the first round of the draft.


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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